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30 September 2020

Ford Falcon at 60: Why it mattered, and why it still matters

By Byron MathioudakisByron Mathioudakis
Where it all started...

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Ford Falcon’s Australian launch.

Did anybody acknowledge the milestone? Ford marked the original XK’s 1960 local production-line debut on June 28 this year, but it’s been crickets since. Four years on from the final-ever FGX sedan, it’s as if the Falcon has already faded from the national consciousness.

We’re here to right this wrong. After all, is there a more storied nameplate in Australia?

The XR was promoted as the "Mustang-bred Falcon". The XR was promoted as the "Mustang-bred Falcon".

Falcon was phenomenally popular. It dethroned the bestselling Holden for the first time in 1977, then in 1981 through to 1987 (at times pulling in over 15 per cent of all Australian new car sales, including 81,366 registrations in one year alone), and in 1992, 1993 and 1995. And if the big Ford wasn’t number one, it came runner-up in the in-between years from 1960 to 2005.

More than mere sales, though, the Falcon is inextricably woven into our automotive culture.

No other Australian-made car ever lasted longer, with a direct DNA link in the in-line six-cylinder engine from that first XK to very last FGX made 56 years later, on October 7, 2016.

The XA was the first locally designed and engineered Falcon. The XA was the first locally designed and engineered Falcon.

Exactly 60 years ago Falcon provided the first real threat to Holden’s hitherto vice-like sales grip, chipping away from 50 per cent of total market share to that point in 1977 when the XC usurped the HX/HZ Kingswood/Premier as Australia’s favourite car.

That’s also the famous Falcon Bathurst 1-2 victory year by Allan Moffat and Colin Bond, by the way. There were 14 more wins besides, and third in the gruelling 1968 London to Sydney Marathon.

Speaking of racing, the 1966 XR model was the first affordable Australian V8 family car, democratising performance in a whole new way for local customers. A year later, the Falcon GT began a sports sedan tradition that led to the XY GTHO Phase III becoming the world’s fastest four-door sedan in 1971.

Compared to the XC Falcon, the XD was 116kg lighter. Compared to the XC Falcon, the XD was 116kg lighter.

Crossing over to pop culture, from 1964, the XM kicked off many seasons of Falcons in cop drama Homicide, the 1968 XT wagon was a mainstay in marsu-ploitation TV serial, Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo, and who could ever forget the 1973 XB Hardtop as immortalised in Mad Max (1979)?

Leaving the great indoors, for six decades your chance of hailing a Falcon taxi were pretty high. That ever-present gear whine as you sat on saggy old vinyl while being driven to or from a night out was a familiar sensation for thousands. And as for newly-minted P-platers, the big, indelicate Ford provided the carriage from childhood to adulthood – sometimes from the back seat. It took us to school, university, work, out and about and then back home again. Right across Australia. Still does.

1988-1991 EA Falcon GL: The author's recent acquisition, purchased for less than the price of metallic paint on some new premium cars. In its day, the EA26 project was considered one of the most beautiful contemporary sedans in the world. 1988-1991 EA Falcon GL: The author's recent acquisition, purchased for less than the price of metallic paint on some new premium cars. In its day, the EA26 project was considered one of the most beautiful contemporary sedans in the world.

Like the first Holden of 1948, and indeed many Australians, Falcon started life as an immigrant. It was created in the late 1950s to fight increasingly popular smaller foreign imports like the Volkswagen Beetle. Fun fact: Ford had no intention of selling Falcon here, until – on seeing an early design mock-up – two visiting senior execs from Geelong sent an urgent telegram back home stating, simply: “Cancel Zephyr”.

Aussies didn’t mince words back then. Remember Sandy’s response after Danny asked her why she wasn’t back home in Australia in Grease? “We had a change of plans!”

Since its disastrous reveal in '98, the AU has since become an internet meme. Since its disastrous reveal in '98, the AU has since become an internet meme.

That spur-of-the-moment decision certainly changed livelihoods. With its popularity came hundreds of thousands of new jobs directly and indirectly from Falcon’s ongoing development, manufacture and sales, branching out into significant success stories based on Falcon, like the Fairlane (1967-2007) and LTD (1973-2007).

Falcon also begat Australia’s only-ever SUV – one that was considered amongst the best in the world for over half a decade – in the shape of the innovative Territory (2004-2016). Its development in turn improved the Falcon, to the point where, from the BA (2002) onwards, these were probably the best, most consistently strong versions. Certainly since the XR, XW (1969) and XY (1970).

Until 1972’s XA, the Falcon looked almost identical to the US Falcon, but with the American series petering out in the late ‘60s, Broadmeadows designed and engineered uniquely Australian versions, matching the HQ-HZ Holdens of the time. However, GMH was forced to downsize into the German Opel Rekord for the VB Commodore of 1978, leaving the 1979 XD, 1988 EA and 1998 AU as the only truly local designs. Yes, the 1988 VN and 1997 VT Commodores were distinctly Holden, but both were styled on corresponding Opel models. That was remedied with the stunning VE Commodore of 2006, but that of course is another story with a sad ending.

The turbocharged Barra was nicknamed "Gull" after seagull, because Ford knew it was going to crap on everything. The turbocharged Barra was nicknamed "Gull" after seagull, because Ford knew it was going to crap on everything.

Heartbreakingly, the Falcon came tantalisingly close to experiencing another, alternate timeline that could have seen it go down a very different path.

By the mid 2000s, a new-from-the-ground-up export-focused global-reaching rear-drive replacement for the BA/BF model was well underway, which would have given Ford Australia the engineering lead for a host of international spinoff models across a number of Blue Oval-owned brands, including – reportedly – the 2014 S550 Mustang.

The FG moniker paid tribute to the discontinued Farirmont Ghia. The FG moniker paid tribute to the discontinued Farirmont Ghia.

However, Ford globally was haemorrhaging cash and one of the cutbacks following founder Henry Ford heir Bill Ford’s ascension to power was to drastically cut programs… including the future Falcon project. Instead, we received yet another rehash of the ageing E-series platform – that essentially dated back to the beautiful but flawed EA – in the FG of 2008. Against the VE it felt old; against the booming SUVs both Australian sedans were completely out of step with consumer tastes.

Would the global Falcon project have saved vehicle manufacturing in Australia? Probably not in the longer term. And Ford Australia instead was granted the T6 Ranger program, and that truck – a decade on and in the twilight years of the original model’s 2010 release today – remains a critical and commercial success globally.

Built on the same platform as the Falcon, the Territory has the honour of being the only Aussie SUV ever. Built on the same platform as the Falcon, the Territory has the honour of being the only Aussie SUV ever.

The fact is, the experience gained with Falcon and Territory help make Ranger and its Everest wagon offshoot enduringly competitive – right up to 2027, from what we understand, when the 2022 redesign reaches the end of the production line.

So, happy 60th birthday, Ford Falcon. You lived life big and even in death your legacy continues.